Bullying - Educator


Educator Resources

Educators are often on the front lines of combating bullying. Children with special needs are most often bullied at school - in the hallways, cafeteria, and on the bus. In this section of the toolkit you will find helpful resources for school administrators, teachers, and support staff who may witness incidents of bullying or hear reports of it from students.

Conversation Starters

Educators often see incidents of bullying in school hallways, classrooms, cafeterias, and on the bus. These sample stories of bullying and conversation starters can help break the silence and give teachers, administrators and support staff a guide to talking to bullies and their targets. Most bullying ends when conversations like these happen, so educators have the unique position of being at the front line with the ability to make real and lasting change in the lives of all children involved.

Story 1 - Josie

Josie is a 15-year-old high school student with hearing loss, and many of the boys in her class say they would like to go out with her. Robert overhears some boys talking about Josie and the next time he sees her in the hallway – knowing the teen can’t hear – he makes a sexually inappropriate comment about Josie to his friends.

Josie notices that Robert’s friends are giving her uncomfortable looks and laughing but, because she is unaware of his behavior, she has no idea why. Robert continues acting this way every time he sees Josie. Eventually, one of the boys shares with Josie what’s going on and she is left feeling humiliated and angry.

Conversation starter:**

Josie, I am sorry that this happened to you. What Robert did was inappropriate. Comments about sexuality in this manner are considered bullying – or harassment – and he will have consequences. What is most important is that we want to support you so you don’t have to experience this again. We are going to work out a plan and we would like to include your ideas. Would you like to be a part of the planning?

Story 2 - Jack

Jack is a high school student diagnosed with autism. At one time he was a good student but lately Jack’s grades have been slipping. He is refusing to eat lunch at school and is avoiding going to science class. During the lunch hour, a number of teachers have reported seeing Jack pacing back and forth outside the lunchroom. Asked by a teacher why he isn’t eating, Jack says he’s not hungry and the teacher doesn’t press the issue. This routine continues for several days.

Eventually, Jack is informed that he must be in the lunchroom at that time or he will face disciplinary action. Jack has also been skipping science class, which eventually lands him in the principal’s office. By questioning Jack about his behavior, the principal discovers that Jack is afraid to go in the lunchroom because there is a group of boys who swipe his tray and eat his food. They also tell him he is worthless and everyone hates him. The principal also learns that every day in science class, the teacher tells the students to “pair up.” When this happens – including where there is an even number of students – Jack is left out of the mix as the kids purposely form groups of three to exclude him. They tell Jack he is a “loser,” that he doesn’t deserve to have any friends, and ask him why he even bothers coming to school.

Conversation Starter:

Jack, we want you to know that no one ever deserves to be bullied, and that all students have a right to be safe at school. We are going to work with your IEP team and make some changes to your schedule. We’ll help develop a network of students who can support you, and create a plan (with your input) to make sure this behavior stops and doesn’t happen again.

Story 3 - Lauren

Lauren is a middle school student with cerebral palsy. She and her neighbor Kaylee are life-long friends and the two girls have been inseparable since preschool. At the beginning of seventh grade, Kaylee decides to try out for the dance team, which many students view as something only the “popular” girls are part of. Kaylee is excited to learn she has been chosen for the squad and Lauren is happy for her because she knows how important it is to her friend. Kaylee asks Lauren to come to the first practice and then to have dinner at her house afterward.

The day after practice, the captain of the dance team stops Kaylee in the hallway and wants to know why her friend moves the way she does. Kaylee explains what she knows about cerebral palsy but the captain is unimpressed. She tells Kaylee the other girls are not comfortable having Lauren around. “We have ‘standards’ on our team,” the captain says. “If you want to be part of the squad, you need to choose your friends more carefully.”

Conversation starter

Kaylee, what is happening to you and Lauren is bullying – it’s called “exclusion” and “social manipulation.” This happens to a lot of students and we want you to know that this form of bullying is written into our school district policy and is not acceptable at our school. There will be consequences for the team captain. With your consent, we would like you and Lauren to share your ideas about how this issue can be addressed, both for you and other students it might happen to.

Story 4 - Kyle

Kyle is a high school student with Down syndrome. He is new at the school and spends most of his day in special education classes. During lunch hour, he sometimes sits with a group of younger boys who soon pick up on the fact that Kyle likes Maddie, one of the more popular girls in school. Thinking it would be funny, the boys tell Kyle that Maddie likes him, too, and Kyle is pleased when he hears this. The boys encourage Kyle to talk to Maddie which he eventually does, and she is very gracious and kind about it. At the urging of the boys, Kyle talks to Maddie every day but she eventually becomes uncomfortable with the situation and asks Kyle to stop. “She’s just playing hard to get. That’s what girls do,’” the boys tell Kyle. “Go talk to her again. Send her an e-mail and call her, too!”

Kyle follows their advice but the next day he is called to the principal’s office and informed that Maddie does not want to have any more contact with him. Kyle is confused. He tells the boys what happened and they urge him to “Go talk to Maddie right now. She doesn’t really mean that.” So the next day, Kyle talks to Maddie again and is summoned to the principal’s office once more. This time, the principal calls Kyle’s mother to inform her that Kyle has been “harassing” the girl and that she is considering filing a restraining order. He also informs Kyle’s mother that the school is conducting an investigation to determine if the harassment is sexual in nature.

Conversation starter

Kyle, what we have been told about your behavior with Maddie is very serious. We have been hearing different stories but, before we take any action, we’d like to know more. As part of our investigation, it is important that we hear what you have to say and we want to give you the opportunity to tell us what happened. Would you feel more comfortable having this conversation with one or both of your parents here? What would be the most comfortable way for you to share any concerns you have about this situation? We want to develop a plan so that every student in our school – including you – feels comfortable.

Story 5 - Ann

Ann, an 11-year-old with Aspergers, has been asking her mom to drive her to school lately. This is difficult because it causes her mom to be late for work. Ann is so upset about the situation that her mom agrees to drive her to school for two weeks but she insists that Ann ride the bus home. Eventually, Ann refuses to go to school altogether.

Frustrated, Ann’s mother talks to her friend next door about the situation and the friend tells the mother about something her daughter shared. The daughter said there was a group of kids on the bus who were making fun of Ann. Two days ago, as she walked down the aisle, Ann was tripped and pushed. She fell awkwardly and her books were strewn across the bus floor. The neighbor’s daughter said many of the children laughed about what had happened. She wanted to help but was too afraid to act. Ann’s mother immediately called the school to discuss the situation. “Don’t worry about it,” she was told. “These kinds of things happen on the bus every day. It’s just kids playing around.”

Conversation starter

Ann, we are sorry that your mom was told that this is just “kids playing around.” What has been happening to you on the school bus is bullying and no one deserves to be bullied. You have the right to be safe at school and that includes your bus ride. We are going to talk with your mom again, then take steps to make sure that your bus ride is safe. When we develop a plan – with your permission – we would like to include your ideas. Would you like to be involved? Remember, you are not alone. None of this was your fault, and we are going to help.

** The students involved in a bullying situation should always be spoken to individually, not as a group

Teaching Tolerance

There are many ways that teachers and school administrators can create a culture that fosters kindness and leaves no room for bullying. Tolerance is one of the key skills that schools can help instill in children.

Teaching tolerance can come in many different forms. You can create specific curriculums and events around disability awareness months, such as Down Syndrome month in October. Invite speakers in to classrooms to highlight individuals with disabilities who have made a positive impact in their community. Talk about bullying of students with special needs as a civil rights issue, and make connections to other civil rights. Talk about the R-word with students, and explore the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign. Give students something actionable they can do, by asking them to call out uses of hateful or derogatory speech.

Keep reading for a few stories of real schools who are implementing Ability Awareness programs

In Pacifica, CA parents, educators and administrators have successfully implemented an Ability Awareness Day, dedicated to bringing awareness about students with special needs. The day is filled with educational programs culminating in an afternoon of experiential learning. In the afternoon, the students are able to touch, play and experience the world of switches and other technology that helps children and youth with various disabilities. Wheelchairs and other equipment are also provided and fun activities to do while using such equipment is demonstrated. The event has been offered for more than 10 years and is a testament to a strong collaborative partnership between parents and educators.

In Burlingame, CA an entire week is dedicated to Ability Awareness. Originally started by parents of children with special needs, the program has dramatically expanded since its inception. From the beginning the concept had tremendous buy in from the superintendent and administrators, helping to make it a true community program. Each elementary school has a “treasure chest” complete with books, reading lists and activities to promote ability awareness and respect. A Kids on The Block puppet show is performed in Kindergarten classes that center around a boy with cerebral palsy, who is proud and excited to show off his wheelchair to students. First thru third graders participate in hands-on activities provided by Community Gatepath that demonstrate what it might be like to have limited dexterity, speech and vision as well as an exercise in what it might be like to have a learning disability like dyslexia. Students discuss their feelings and despite the challenges they encounter many see that they CAN do things but they might do them differently and at a different pace. In the junior high, a collection of powerful videos are shown in class that demonstrate ability. A couple years ago, a sibling in high school produced a podcast about growing up with her brother—which was moving and captured the tween audience. An art poster competition is now also included into the event. Burlingame’s Ability Awareness week brings together the community—parents, schools and community partners and culminates into a “Spirit Night” at the middle school to celebrate ability!

Social and Emotional Learning Curriculums (SEL) are also a great way to teach tolerance

Social and emotional learning (SEL) assists children to develop fundamental skills to effectively handle school, relationships and personal development. Examples may include managing emotions, caring for others, decision making and handling situations ethically. New research provides dramatic evidence that social and emotional learning can be taught, just like geometry and Spanish.

High-quality SEL programs led to significant improvements in students’ social and emotional skills, in attitudes about self and others, and in classroom behavior. Programs were also associated with substantial decreases in conduct problems and emotional distress such as anxiety and depression—all of which are part of the bullying phenomenon. Academic scores also improved significantly—by as much as 11 percentile points. Educators realized that SEL doesn’t interfere with academic learning but helps it.

Because social and emotional components factor into why children bully other students, the ability to teach them behavioral skills, many of which are part of SEL, can reduce the incidence of bullying – no matter if the victim is a child with special needs or neurotypical student. Vreeman and Carroll (2007) concluded in a report that the most effective anti-bullying programs are those that take a “whole-school approach” such as SEL. Social awareness and relationship skills also aid in the prevention of bullying, either by the better understanding of a student’s differences or intervention by bystanders to support the victim.

For more information and ideas about teaching tolerance, check out the resources below

Walk a Mile in their Shoes - AbilityPath

The Starabella Series - Kids audio/picture books

Starabella was created by the Fialco family based on the experiences of their daughter Tara, a self-taught pianist and composer who deals with autism. The audio-picture books follow the story of a courageous little girl with learning differences who expresses her thoughts and feelings and reflections of the world around her through music. Books one and two focus on Starabella at home and in her community. Book Three, "Starabella: Welcome to a Bright New World" offers a new way to deal with bullying, and can be used to teach school children about coming together as a classroom "family" to solve everyday social conflict situations.

The Autism Acceptance Book: Being a Friend to Someone with Autism

The Autism Acceptance Book is an interactive, educational and character-building book that introduces children to the challenges faced by people with autism while also supporting their personal journey toward appreciating and respecting people's differences. The 62-page spiral-bound book offers educational information, conversation-starters, and engaging exercises that invite children to “walk in someone else's shoes” as they learn to treat others the same ways they would like to be treated themselves. This book is ideal for use in classrooms, camps, and other group settings. A free Teacher’s Guide is also available to help teachers maximize the impact of the book

Creating a Zero Tolerance Environment

Schools are just one part of the equation to combating the bullying epidemic. However, they play a key and vital role to setting the tone of tolerance. It is important for districts and individual schools to have their bullying policy available and accessible to all.

  • Include a prominent link to the school's bullying policy on your website
  • Review the highlights of the policy at back to school nights with families,
  • Reveiw the policy with students during the first week of school
  • Keep the conversation going about the zero tolerance for bullying policy that the school/district follows throughout the year

Just as important as parents and students is sharing the policy with vendors, because they are technically an extension of the school. This includes bus drivers, specialists/therapists providing designated instructional services, substitute teachers and others. Before the contracts with these individuals or companies are signed, reviewing the bullying policy and outlining the process for internal review if a complaint is filed is imperative to extending the zero tolerance beyond the school yard.

Creating a safe environment is necessary for students to learn and thrive. Show your community bulling behavior is not welcomed and doesn’t have a place in your community. Consider having students, teachers, administrators, families and vendors sign “contracts” or agreements that they’ve read the bullying policy and they pledge to adhere to this policy. Celebrate when students show acts of kindness, philanthropy or other social good. This isn’t just about discipline and punishment, good anti-bullying practices include reward and recognition for doing the right thing!

Peer Advocacy


Before Julie Hertzog became the director of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center , she was a concerned parent. Because her son David was born with Down syndrome, was nonverbal, and had a Pacemaker and a feeding tube, she was worried that he would be vulnerable to bullying. As she advocated for her son with school staff, she realized how much student interaction happens outside the view of adults.

Recognizing that David’s classmates could be powerful allies for her son in bullying situations, Hertzog worked with the school to create a unique support for him while he was in sixth grade. A group of his classmates received training disability and on how to prevent bullying and speak out on David’s behalf. They called these students peer advocates. If they see bullying they can intervene, talk privately with the person who is bullying, help remove David from the situation or report to an adult.

The idea worked for David. Now what started with four children in sixth grade has evolved to a school wide project. More than 40 students volunteer to become peer advocates so they can help David and other students with disabilities. The program continues today in the middle school and students from the original pilot that are now in high school championed with their administration to start a program at their school. It’s a strategy that any parent and educators can explore.

Learn more about implementing a peer advocacy program in your school.


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